Monday, January 7, 2008

When "Funny" Isn't

Once upon a time, I prided myself on my ability to make a person feel two inches tall in less than ten words. I was good at using sarcasm and "wit", and built quite a reputation for myself. I was careful to use my linguistic power only when the situation warranted it and the object of my censure was fully deserving of it. I thought that made me safe, excused me from any sin. A long series of experiences gradually led me to change my opinion, culminating with my husband's explanation of his extreme distaste for any form of sarcasm.

I've recently had an experience with a blog post that has led me to think about this topic again. I observed a once-admired person ridiculing a group of people I do not agree with. Despite being superficially on the "side" of the ridiculer, I felt uncomfortable and finally felt that I should speak up, lest my silence be construed as tacit approval. As a result, I put myself in a position to also be ridiculed. I have mixed feelings of disappointment and hurt about this. Gradually, the hurt is fading, though I'm still disappointed. I thought perhaps I was wrong in my stance, so I decided to make it the topic of study in my scripture study this morning. Since I think best when I write, I thought I'd share my conclusions here. It's not meant as an attack or justification; it's just a way for me to cope with what happened and to resolve my internal concerns. I have found that both scriptures and leadership, with one exception, seem to agree with me.

There is an undeniably bitter chasm between those who have left the LDS Church and those who still profess to believe. Often, those who have left mock and point fingers at those who believe in the Gospel. Sometimes, this mockery becomes downright attack. Unfortunately, mockery is not the sole prerogative of the disaffected. In fact, sometimes mockery creates the disaffected. President Hinckley in 1986 said "Everywhere is heard the insulting remark, the sarcastic comment, the verbal attack against the reputations of others. Sadly, these are too often the bases of our conversation. . . . In the Church it sows the seed of inactivity and finally apostasy." Those who become inactive and/or leave the Church can be either source or subject of the mockery. Ofttimes, they either begin to mock sacred things, even in jest or, when they find themselves doubting or with questions, they find themselves denigrated and shunned by those who should be their brothers and sisters in the gospel. In the latter case, the situation often seems to prove to those who are doubting that the Church is not founded by God. Some find it hard to believe that the Church of God would include those who do not practice His charity, and so they stop believing and they leave.

There is no doubt that not all humor is wrong, but sarcasm is a particular brand of so-called "humor" of its own. Peter B. Rawlins in his 1974 New Era article explains,
"A most damaging form of humor is sarcasm, or cutting, hostile, or contemptuous remarks. Such humor is usually based on inordinate pride and is usually aimed at some person or group thought to be inferior, such as minority races, ethnic groups, and the physically handicapped. Occasionally some good comes from these jokes when taken in good humor by the object of the joke . . . . but this occurs only when the feelings of all concerned are considered.

Though often meant to be harmless, sarcasm denotes insensitivity to the feelings of others, stemming either from thoughtlessness or maliciousness."
In other words, the very nature of sarcasm includes insensitive thoughtlessness or maliciousness, depending on whether or not the person is aware that they are hurting others. To say that someone deserves the sarcasm is to admit, perhaps without conscious realization, to intentional hurting of another child of God, no matter how far led astray that child of God may be.

That is not to say that one should never criticize behavior. As President Hinckley later says,
"I am asking that we look a little deeper for the good, that we halt the sounds of insult and sarcasm, that we more generously compliment virtue and effort. I am not asking that all criticism be silenced. Growth comes of correction. Strength comes of repentance. Wise is the man who can acknowledge mistakes pointed out by others and change his course of action."
The trick is to make certain that criticism is being done in a spirit of love and not one of mocking sarcasm. ANY time criticism is necessary, the criticizer must show an increase of love towards the person if they wish to criticize righteously. One should try to evaluate and see if their love is stronger than death. Otherwise, one should probably refrain from criticizing, unless otherwise directed by the Spirit. (And if you're in the frame of spirit necessary to be directed by the Spirit, you are probably also filled with love for the person needing to be criticized!)

Those who are struggling with questions and doubts need that love more than anyone. It is too common (and easy) to label people with doubts as near-Apostates, and then to ignore and revile them. After all, Korihor was not allowed to teach among the Anti-Nephi-Lehis, and Christ did not always give the Pharisees nothing but warm fuzzies. Most of the time, however, if the situation is examined with a prayerful heart, it will be discovered that the people in question are not nearly anti-Christs and are almost never deliberately misunderstanding the Gospel as the Pharisees did. Usually, people with doubts are just like every other person in the Church. Can any long-term member honestly say that they have never had questions or doubts and yet still have a strong testimony? If there are any, they are rare.

I guess that most of the time, those members who overreact to questions and doubts do so because they do not have a true understanding of agency and the Atonement, or faith in their own testimony. They are afraid of questions and doubts because they are afraid that if they are exposed to questions, their testimonies will be undermined.

Of course, my last two paragraphs do not apply to those few souls who are truly anti-Christ. These are people whose only goal is to lead others away from the Church and from Christ. It is usually quite easy to tell the difference. Anti-Christs are rarely questioning, but they often pose rhetorical questions. They rarely seem as though they are searching, but will exude confidence in the answers they have already received. If nothing else, if you can feel the Spirit's true love and sorrow for a person, but still feel that you should not engage in discussion, the Spirit is directing you away from a conversation, rather than your own fears acting to categorize and revile a person who is honestly seeking to know.

What I have found is that sarcasm is not compatible with Christian discipleship. I could find no references to God or Christ mocking anyone. The one exception I found in the scriptures is when it mentions in Proverbs and Psalms that the Lord will laugh at the wicked. Given the nature of these two books of scripture, I think that is a bit of literary word painting on Solomon's and David's (or others') parts, and not literal.

Meekness is compatible with discipleship, and as Elder Maxwell stated in his 1982 BYU address, the meek know how to not speak. They have nothing to prove and no need to revile others. "The meek think of more clever things to say than are said. And it’s just as well, for there is so much more cleverness in the world than wisdom, so much more sarcasm than idealism."

Rawlins says later in his article:
"Would it not be better to “lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5) than to humiliate and disgrace one of our neighbors? When humor is such a powerful tool in building subtle bonds of brotherhood, in cheering those who suffer, and in teaching profound and memorable lessons, why should it be used to belittle and discourage?

Those who profess belief in Christ should shape their humor in the light of Christ’s teachings. Being rejected from His kingdom because of a warped sense of humor would not be funny."
Sarcasm is never funny. "Remember, too, that no matter what you see in the TV sit-coms and movies, put-down, cutting humor is not good humor. While it may be entertaining to watch, in real life, cutting humor and sarcasm are too unkind to be funny. They can only injure, never uplift." (Chris Crowe, New Era 1986)

What disciple of Christ would wish to harm any of the souls for which He died? Whether or not those souls accept His sacrifice is irrelevant; He died for them unconditionally, should we not give them the benefit of the doubt and love them unconditionally? Let their choices push them away from the Church and the comfort of God, if that is what they wish. Never let your choices force that decision upon them. If you criticize, criticize with love, not sarcasm. You might be surprised how many "near-Apostates" only need that love to give them the courage and strength they need to come back to Him.

Other interesting and pertinent articles:
Brad Wilcox 2000
Rex A. Skidmore 1988
James E. Faust 2000
Russell Wilcox 2007
FHE Book 1997


  1. You do make a lot of sense when you are "thinking things out." Yes, even in jest, sarcasm can hurt. It is hard as sometimes people do gentle teasing that makes a person feel included. Some people have the knack for it. But sarcasm that demeans a person in any way, is wrong and hurtful. Thank you for the reminder. By the way, I am starting to blog on a more frequent basis these days. I am at a forum at under bkb. That is where I will be doing my present blogging-Barb

  2. I totally agree, SilverRain. Sarcasm is usually very damaging to the victim.

    It is true, however, as Anonymous mentions, that some people (mostly men) sometimes use a form of "trash talking" to foster inclusion. I had difficulty understanding this at first; but I came to see how sometimes gentle sarcasm can indeed be teasing that bonds, rather than causing hard feelings. That kind of sarcasm is usually humorous to all the participants, because it depends upon exaggeration, and it is both offered and taken as a joke.

    The kind of hard-edged, contemptuous sarcasm sometimes used in the media (and on blogs) is very different in nature, and in my opinion, it drives away the Spirit very quickly.

  3. One of the challenges, too, with sarcasm, particularly online, is that it is so easy to misunderstand and misread. I have been in discussions where a commenter was often sarcastic, but it was hard to tell when that tone was there and when the poster was serious. Consequently, it was easy to misread a comment as serious when it was meant to be 'funny' and vice-versa. It makes me want to pull my hair out, and in a way undermines any possibility of trust because I would like to be able to take a person at his/her word and not have to guess the tone.

    I, too, have felt that it is best to avoid sarcasm. I have found that too often, I will be tempted to use sarcasm when I actually am serious, not really when attempting to be funny. What I have found is that that hurts ME when I do that, and can hurt a relationship. This, of course, is different from light-hearted fun. But in my mind, that should only happen between close people who know when a joke is a joke, never when there is the risk of misunderstanding or hurt feelings.

    So, what I'm still mulling in my mind is how best to respond when I run into inappropriate sarcasm. Point it out/mention disagreement with the approach? Let it go? I think probably seeking for discernment to understand why that person is using sarcasm is good (sometimes it may be because of underlying pain or frustration, and the sarcasm is simply a supposed mask or distraction from the pain, while still being able to 'get the message across.') (?? Did that make sense?...sort of thinking out loud here).

    What makes it hard is that I have found that those who use sarcasm will often continue to use sarcasm when approached about it, which then sort of feeds a negative spiral downward. So is it best to just let it go? I'd be interested in thoughts on this.

    As a side note (not related to the core of the post, but something I feel strongly about)--you said. speaking of anti-Christs: "These are people whose only goal is to lead others away from the Church and from Christ. It is usually quite easy to tell the difference."

    I am not sure that all anti-Christs are necessarily easy to recognize as you say here. If there are wolves in sheep's clothing out there, then to me that says that they will likely (at least sometimes) be hard to identify. Anyway, that is sort of a side comment....

    Frankly, I also think that any of us can be used as this kind of tool if our hearts aren't right. It's one reason why I have appreciated your posts about not using the internet to vent, because I think that such things can be and are used for the adversary's purposes, whether we intend them to be or not. We need to be ever-so-vigilant, especially, as Elder Ballard recently reminded us, when we put our words out there that will be permanently search-able and re-readable.

  4. Ergh. That comment was too long. Sorry. I applaud your desire to avoid sarcasm. I thought of you today when I had the urge to respond to someone with sarcasm, then remembered what has been discussed and knew in my heart that if I used it, it wouldn't be good.


  5. m&m, I'm glad you posted at length about this. It really helped me to see how careful I need to be when commenting on blogs.

  6. I appreciate the length of the comment. I love hearing feedback on my thoughts, and you filled in some gaps I left admirably.


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